West Grand Blog

A Capitol letter about the Beatles

Recollections or facts? “I need it in writing”

 

If you haven’t noticed, it will be the 50th anniversary on June 1 of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This milestone is inescapable in the media, probably more so than the celebration of Motown’s 50th, eight years ago. So here’s a look at a different Beatles topic, one which connects with Hitsville U.S.A., nevertheless.

      The group’s admiration for the music of Motown is unimpeachable, and it proved to be a powerful influence over their fans on both sides of the Atlantic, more than half a century back. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn recently reminded me of an October 1964 interview with Berry Gordy in Disc, in which Gordy claimed that when the Fab Four broke massively that year in America, Tamla sales almost doubled. And in September ’64, Motown attorney George Schiffer had written to EMI Records’ Derek Everett, noting that “the Beatles, our best publicists, mention our records and artists wherever they go.”

      But that Motown revenue surge over 1963’s $4 million-plus is more likely to have come from music publishing monies attributable to Beatles covers of Hitsville originals, rather than record sales of Motown artists. Three songs published by Jobete Music, Motown’s publishing arm, were part of The Beatles’ Second Album, released by Capitol Records in the U.S. in April 1964. They were, of course, “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Please Mr. Postman” and (with a minor misspelling) “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.” The LP spent more than a year on the Billboard charts, including five weeks at No. 1. In Britain, it was With The Beatles which included the three covers. When released in November 1963, that album occupied the charts for 51 weeks, with 21 of them at the summit.

      The Jobete bottom line would have been hugely boosted by mechanical income from the Beatles’ sales, and performance royalties from ubiquitous broadcasting of the songs. (A mechanical royalty derives from the license agreed between a music publisher and a record company for the latter to reproduce a song “mechanically” on vinyl, tape or compact disc.) Given that the Beatles conquered so much of the world in 1964, revenues would also have poured in from Jobete’s foreign affiliates. Another, smaller bonus would have been U.K. sub-publishing income from Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ cover of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” a British chart-topper in late 1963.

      (Like other snooty Motown fans, I was incensed by those remakes at the time. Why would anyone want to hear the Beatles singing, say, “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” when they could bathe in the Miracles’ bottomless original? Eventually, I understood how Motown, its songwriters and artists benefited from such musical endorsements, but it took me years to get to that point, and grudgingly.)

      Berry Gordy tackled the topic of those cover versions in his autobiography, To Be Loved, claiming that he took a call from “a man in the London office” of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. According to this account, the group wanted to record three Jobete songs, and Epstein’s rep was in pursuit of a reduced mechanical royalty. Berry also wrote that he had met Epstein in Detroit only a few months earlier, and become aware of the Beatles’ love of Motown. At first, he rejected the idea of any knockdown of the prevailing two-cent rate, but after consulting with his team, Gordy capitulated, “agreeing to [Capitol’s] demand of the one-and-a-half-cent rate.” Then he discovered, supposedly that same day, that Capitol had already begun to ship The Beatles’ Second Album to radio and retail. If he had held his ground, Capitol would have had to pay the higher royalty.

      Janie Bradford, co-author of “Money (That’s What I Want),” also reminisced about the Epstein initiative in her essay for the fourth volume of The Complete Motown Singles series. As Motown’s receptionist, Janie wrote, she took the call from London, passing on the message to Gordy. “I don’t think they knew I was the girl who helped write [the song],” she added.

      But let’s entertain an alternative scenario. That nobody called Motown for a discount before the Beatles cut the three Jobete songs in July 1963. Why would they? It wouldn’t even have been clear at that stage whether such recordings would be released anywhere, let alone in the United States. Moreover, Mark Lewisohn, the ultimate authority on the Beatles, tells me that Brian Epstein did not visit Motown in ’63. Epstein certainly had more pressing matters that year, and is unlikely to have been aware of Berry Gordy. Moreover, Berry had preoccupations of his own in 1963, which would not have included the studio activities of a British beat group unknown in America, however much the members liked his company’s output.

      Instead, consider this: that it was Capitol Records which sought the lower mechanical rate from Jobete Music, as it compiled tracks for a new Beatles LP. On February 13, 1964, Tom Morgan in Capitol’s business affairs department in Hollywood wrote to another American firm, Conrad Music, asking to shave the mechanical for “Thank You Girl,” which it published. “Dave Dexter, International A & R, has several good masters by The Beatles, recorded and ready to go,” explained the Capitol official. “It’s your good fortune that one of the songs is yours.

      “I don’t know what Dave plans to release as the next single or to use in the next album, or both, or whether your title will get released at all,” Morgan continued. “But I can surely tell you that a considerable bearing on his decision will be made providing we get a reduced rate.” The letter concludes, “I’m not trying to hold a hammer over your head. We have reduced rates on nearly everything we’ve released by The Beatles thus far, and that’s with no choice of selections. I’m sure you realize how happy those publishers are. The sooner you get back to me, the better your chances, because Dexter may have to move fast before all the answers are in.”

      Mark Lewisohn shared Tom Morgan’s letter with me. Conrad Music was the publishing arm of Vee Jay Records, which briefly licensed the Beatles’ recordings for U.S. release in 1963 after Capitol turned them down, twice. The man responsible for that turndown was Dave Dexter, whose decision has been written about – and mocked – many times since then. (I knew Dexter during my early years at Billboard, and had my writing subbed by him; he was the trade magazine’s copy editor then. Let’s just say that Dave, now deceased, was not a fan of rock & roll.)

      I’m inclined to believe – with due respect to Mr. Gordy, and to Janie Bradford – that Tom Morgan sent a similar letter to Jobete Music in February 1964. After all, the Beatles were ablaze in America by that point, following their incendiary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9. What better opportunity for Capitol to seek a knockdown from the publishers of “Money (That’s What I Want),” “Please Mr. Postman” and “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” just as they did from Conrad Music for "Thank You Girl"? The final track listing for The Beatles’ Second Album had probably not been finalized at that stage (the LP was eventually released by Capitol on April 10).

      Perhaps the mystery man in Brian Epstein’s office did call Motown to follow up the Morgan missive, but I rather suspect that this was all between the record company and the music publisher, not involving artist management. It was Capitol which had the most to gain. “It was Capitol’s bottom line,” agrees Mark Lewisohn, “literally no one else’s business, and certainly not the business of Brian Epstein or any of his colleagues.”

      Granted, that is not as engaging a story as a transatlantic telephone call to Motown from London, recollections of an Epstein visit to Detroit, and a business mistake. But working in the music industry can often be prosaic, which doesn’t sell autobiographies. “Don’t phone,” Morgan instructed executives at Conrad Music on that winter’s day of ’64. “I need it in writing. I’m sure you understand.”

      We do, Tom. Now where’s the communication – with discount agreed or denied – between Jobete and Capitol? Please Mr. Postman, did you deliver da letter? In whose vault does it rest today? I’m sure you understand that Money is at stake. Besides, with these facts, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.

Adam WhiteComment